Not simply adults in waiting: UN launches General Comment on the rights of adolescents
By Elizabeth Arif-Fear, Communications Officer (intern)
On February 7th, the UN officially launched its new General Comment on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence – an event attended by our Director, Tricia Young, in Geneva. This timely document highlights both the capacities and vulnerabilities of young people, holding States accountable for recognising, upholding and implementing the rights of adolescents as individual, autonomous persons.
This is a much needed tool to draw the world’s attention to the need to encourage and protect adolescents, taking their political, educational, socio-cultural, economic and sexual development into account. Stereotypes of adolescents abound. It is a developmental period that is often demonised and pathologised; adolescents are often referred to as a homogeneous group who are irresponsible and selfish. Simply by being an adolescent, young people can face a distinct form of discrimination in addition to other marginalisation as a consequence of their gender, sexuality and / or disability.
As the UN Children’s Rights Committee highlights:
Adolescence itself can be a source of discrimination. During this period, adolescents may be treated as dangerous or hostile, incarcerated exploited or exposed to violence as a direct consequence of their status. Paradoxically, they are also often treated as incompetent and incapable of making decisions about their lives.
Contrary to the stereotypical views of children and teenagers as incapable, “adults in waiting”, young people in fact possess significant developing skills and capabilities. Not only are they more autonomous than their younger peers, but they are in general more outspoken, independent and more critically aware of their environment.
At the same time, they face specific challenges as they move through this critical time of physical, emotional and sexual growth. Particular groups of adolescents may also be more vulnerable to human rights violations as a consequence of disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity or other factors. Promoting and upholding adolescents’ rights therefore requires recognition of specific safeguarding and anti-discrimination measures, as well as support for them to develop their capabilities to become engaged, socially aware young adults.
As a leading organisation promoting child participation, Child to Child has long been advocating for adults to not only listen to children and young adults but to also recognise the value they have in creating change in every aspect of their lives; whether social, political, economic, cultural or educational, both at home and in the wider public sphere – in their schools, communities, nationally and internationally.
Indeed, the UN General Comment expressly states that adolescents are “agents of change, and a key asset and resource with the potential to contribute positively to their families, communities and countries.”
The discrepancy between the capacities of young people and the lack of opportunity they have to play an active role is specifically pinpointed as a government issue in the General Comment. States neither recognise nor invest adequate time and resources to ensure adolescents enjoy their rights.
Child to Child has actively witnessed how participatory practices can transform adolescents’ lives – and the perceptions of adults who engage with them. Through our life-skills project, Hearing All Voices (HAV), previously marginalised and disengaged students were given the opportunity to participate and help citizens in both their local communities and those as far away as Sierra Leone. They grew in confidence, developed a range of skills and, most importantly: they learnt that they are agents of change in their own right.
The ideas and values expressed in this new General Comment are not simply for human rights or child practitioners but for all of us: parents, teachers, siblings, community members, religious leaders, civil servants and most crucially politicians and State leaders. If we are to respect human rights and the rights of children, then we must acknowledge, respect and advocate for the right of adolescents worldwide to participate in matters which affect them, recognising and harnessing the enormous contribution that they can make.